166 years ago this past Friday, on Jan. 22, 1855, the Treaty of Point Elliott was signed in what is now Mukilteo, Washington. The document is the source of much power for many local tribes today, but it wasn’t always that way. It’s celebrated every year in tribal ceremonies that are open to outsiders.
The COVID-19 pandemic is preventing them this year, but those ceremonies date back for as long as anyone remembers. And there is a replica of the treaty that you can go see at a cultural center on the land of the Tulalip Tribes, north of Seattle, near Marysville. The Hibulb Cultural Center, which first opened in August 2001, also has a partial replica of a traditional longhouse and a hall of historic canoes.
To get in, right now you have to pass through a fancy face-scanner that checks your temperature. Then you enter a majestic hallway filled with wooden carvings. There’s a massive ocean-going cedar canoe from the early 1880s, thought to be carved as part of a wedding ceremony, for the dowry of a Quinault bride joining a Tulalip family.
Beyond the hall, inside the spacious galleries, there’s a translucent case in one corner. All the pages of the facsimile are laid out there. It looks real. Brown ink squiggles and lots of X's follow reams of legal jargon, in English.
Raymond Fryberg Sr. has studied it for decades. He says when he looks at it, his eyes go first to the signed names of characters he has gotten to know from his grandparents' descriptions, or because they’re written about in the journals of the settlers. He points to the fifth name down on a central page.
“Watskalatchi (a Snohomish trader and guide) was probably the most traveled Indian in the Puget Sound area, and he was a relative of my great grandmother's," Fryberg says. “I read about him so much, it was like I traveled in the canoe with him when I did research.”
WHY IT'S IMPORTANT
This 70-year-old Tulalip elder and tribal historian is the authority here on this treaty. He started learning about it when he worked in fisheries, then went on to serve on the tribal council and was vice chair for eight years. He was mentored by the late Billy Frank Jr. and, like him, has been a fighter for tribal treaty rights.
“You know, for a lot of people, they assumed that through the treaties, the government gave us something. But the treaty itself said these rights were reserved. And that was defined in there, too, that there was nothing ever granted to the tribes. These were rights that had always belonged to them, and they were further secured with the treaty,” he says.
It secured the rights to fish and hunt and live from the natural resources in the tribes’ “usual and accustomed areas.” The treaty created the reservations, but also defines the tribes as sovereign nations.
When I ask him how many tribes signed this pages-long document, he recites from memory.
“The Lummi, the Nooksack, Upper Skagit, Sauk-Suiattle, Stillaguamish, the Snohomish, the Skykomish, the Snoqualmie. Kikiallus, Suquamish. The Duwamish …” he says.
“That's pretty much it, for Point Elliott. You know, of course then you go south and you get into the Point No Point and Medicine Creek (treaties) and the other different treaty areas.”
This list of signers Fryberg recited traces a map of the region, from roughly the Canadian border to north Puget Sound. These tribes are mostly named after rivers, their lifeblood.
“We’re fishermen. My grandmother fished till she was 82. And we all grew up on the beach and at the water, salmon fishing,” he says.
“And of course, in the Puget Sound, we probably had the richest economy of tribes anywhere. We didn't have to migrate after them. And the fish just kept returning and returning in great quantities.”
They would prepare the fish and trade them with Indians in the plateaus and preserve them, to eat through the winter months at home.
“And we were rich. The rivers were our treasure chest,” Fryberg says.
ROOTED IN FAMILY, SPIRITUALITY
He says he has at least three relations on the list of names that signed this agreement. Also there: his great grandmother’s grandfather, whose name is written in phonetic symbols that – over the years – he has learned to read.
“Sounded out, it looks like (roughly) ‘Shoot Soot.’ But it's – according to the way that my grandmother, great-grandmother had it written down – it was ‘uh-Choot-Soot,’ he says, emphasizing more of a CH sound, at the back of his throat.
“And a part of that, the CH (that rough sound in the back of the throat) always refers to something, or somebody, important.”
He really lights up as he speaks the language. It seems to give him energy. He stands a little taller. With the stocky build of a paddler, he has a long dark ponytail with a graying mustache and glasses that fog up above his mask. The edges of a big tattoo peek out from his shirtsleeves on both arms. He’s proud.
I ask him, “How did you learn all this language, Ray?”
He laughs, explaining that he really doesn’t know that much. Most of it he learned by eavesdropping.
“I was raised with my grandparents on my mother's side. And they spoke Indian to each other all the time,” he says.
“So, you know, I think mostly they spoke at a point when they didn’t want me to hear – or listen.”
He says his grandparents thought they should help children like Fryberg assimilate, by not sharing their culture.
At that time, a federal system of boarding schools forbid Native Americans from speaking their own languages or using their indigenous names. They tried to turn Native Americans into farmers. Catholic missionaries sought to convert the Tulalip Tribes to Christianity.
“We had to hide underground and, you know, face imprisonment just for talking language. Singing and dancing prohibited by law,” he says.
Fryberg's generation has turned that around, by fighting it in court. Yet, like most of the others who signed, the Tulalip Tribes still commemorate the anniversary of the Treaty of Point Elliott with winter dances and ceremonies. They’re public. It’s a way of showing that the treaty also gives them the power to preserve their cultures and traditions. It’s done differently by different families and tribes. But Fryberg says the root of all these gatherings is a unique and ancient form of indigenous spirituality.
“In our ways, a long time ago, children would be prepared for that spiritual – kind of equivalent to a vision quest,” he says.
KEEP SINGING, KEEP DANCING
“We see ourselves connected to the water and the earth and all of these things, you know. That gift, that spiritual vision could come from anything, anywhere. So, there are days of fasting, spiritual and physical purification cleanse so that the spirit can find a good place for it to come and occupy, and then they're sent out,” he explains.
And he says then they’re brought back. The ceremonies can be smoky, often taking place inside longhouses, where people gather to see the initiation of these certain people, as new dancers.
“And of course, the elders share with them a lot about their guidance in life and what this means and how to maintain it and keep it going,” he says. "And they have their own individual song that helps them move on the floor and their dance too.”
You can hear examples of that music in a new recording Fryberg's group, the Salish Spirit Canoe Family, recently published, called “Keep Singing, Keep Dancing.”
Treaty Day dances and big gatherings are not happening this year because of COVID. But they still stand as important rituals.
And this Tulalip elder says the treaty should be regarded not just as the document that gives them rights to resources. He says it’s a testament to all that they did for the white settlers when they arrived, guiding them through the land.
“We helped them establish the first settlements and different things that they wouldn't have got there if it wasn't for us. ... We own half of the history,” he says.
You can see that replica of the treaty of Point Elliott at the Hibulb Cultural Center in Tulalip every day but Monday. The exhibit is called “The Power of Words” and, for now, is expected to stay up indefinitely.
Be sure to bring a mask, and be prepared for a temperature scan at the door.